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Wednesday, March 16, 2011

Treaty for collecting biospecimens

The Convention on Biological Diversity has been updated with a new agreement called the Nagoya protocol. This provision, which goes into effect in 2012, determines exactly how biological specimens can be collected from Third World countries.

The flora and fauna in remote forests and jungles has been a rich source of medicines and other products. However, the ecosystems and political systems of those regions can be adversely affected by collection attempts. To prevent ‘biopiracy’ (stealing valuable biological resources without compensating the local people) or habitat destruction, the Convention on Biodiversity went into affect in 1993. That United Nations treaty declared that nations hold rights to their own biological materials.

Last fall, the Nagoya protocol was drafted. For one thing, it clarifies procedures for getting collection permits. In the past, it wasn’t clear whether researchers on a collecting mission should approach the local university or the town hall. Nagoya requires that there be one national access point to field those requests. The treaty also requires collectors to respect indigenous people’s laws and customs, and spells out how local communities should be compensated for such collections.

The new protocols are expected to be helpful to researchers who know exactly what they are looking for. The procedure for obtaining permission to collect a specific type of seed or fungus, for example, has been streamlined. However, some scientists fear that Nagoya will make early-stage exploratory expeditions, where many kinds of specimens are collected (most of which will prove to be worthless), more complicated.